Saga of a Highland Avenger (Preview)
His brother would win—he had to—yet still, Arran stood on his toes watching, his heart drumming against his chest like a giant fist against a door. Beneath the window where he was hiding, twelve feet below, swords crashed together as soldiers shouted and scattered. Arran’s eyes were wet with fear, but he could not raise his gaze from Bruce. He watched as his sixteen-year-old brother, a boy who was far too tall for his age and covered in silvery cloth, breastplate clasped over his chest, slash through the MacKenzie soldiers.
Arran’s breath hitched as a soldier lunged toward Bruce, his pommel striking against the back of Bruce’s neck. Bruce squealed and swiveled around, his elbow connecting with his attacker’s jaw. The red-haired soldier staggered for a moment, then regained his stance. He charged toward Bruce again, his long blade swinging. Bruce dropped to his knees, raising his own sword above his head. The clang of metal thundered against the air as their swords met. Swiftly, Bruce raised himself into a standing position and, with one slash, he tore into his attacker’s chest.
Blood sprayed about as the red-haired man fell to the ground with one last cry. Bruce turned around, edging forward.
“Bruce!” Arran gasped upon spotting another attacker making toward his brother. He jumped to his feet and ran toward the door, only for his mother to bar his passage.
“Come here!” She pulled him toward her, then cupped his face. She was dressed in a white linen gown, with silver earrings that dangled to her chin.
“We have tae help them, Ma,” Arran whined. He shivered in his mother’s embrace. She smelled of fresh flowers and rose water, of comfort and solace, but it did little to ease Arran’s worry. He felt the heave of her chest as she sighed. “We must help them! We must do something,” repeated Arran.
“Nae we,” she replied. “And nae ye either! Yer a mere lad, Arran. Yer too young tae understand these things. Now go tae yer chambers as yer father ordered ye tae do.”
He withdrew from his mother, chided and feeling useless. He hated feeling useless. He wanted to burst onto the battlefield and fight beside his brother and father. Instead, he was left to watch the battle unfold from high up, helplessly.
He had to do something.
“Yer chambers, Arran,” his mother repeated sternly, and it rang strangely. Ma had a soft spot for all three of her sons, and she had never scolded them as hard as Arran had seen other mothers scold their boys. Arran knew Ma was only trying to play her part, too, and keep him from harm’s way.
“Yes Mother,” Arran said as obediently as he could and made for his chambers.
The guards in the hall stood to attention as he squeezed past, then navigated the passageways and corridors leading to his chambers. He nudged open the door and poised himself by the nearest window to catch sight of his brother once more.
He held his breath as he watched Bruce swivel around, dancing away from a gray-haired soldier and stabbing through another. The defeated man toppled forward, blood sputtering from his mouth before he fell back, his head landing hard against Bruce’s feet.
“Yeah!” Arran cried with a hop, unable to contain his pride. The men around his brother cheered, growled, and bled as the ground beneath them darkened with sweat and blood.
Suddenly, an elbow in Bruce’s rib made him lose his footing, and he stumbled back. He looked up in surprise as MacKenzie soldiers gathered around him, their brutal intentions clear on their faces even from Arran’s perch.
Bruce sought an exit, his eyebrows set low in determination. When he found no purchase, he stuck his chest out and raised his sword, ready for anything, ready to defeat them all by himself.
Many feet behind his brother, Pa slashed through enemies of his own. Arran willed his father to look back, he prayed he would come charging to Bruce’s rescue.
Arran’s knuckles were white as he gripped the windowsill. He felt hot and pale, choked with helplessness. Bruce was outnumbered. Even worse, here Arran was, standing and watching from an open window, unable to do anything about it.
Then, Arran remembered his stones and sling and dashed away to find them. Where had he put them last? Under his pillows, perhaps, or in a drawer. He fumbled around the room.
Even though he was no great shot, surely a stone or two were bound to hit a few heads and cause enough of a distraction for Bruce to escape. Arran patted around and found nothing. He held his face in his hands and worried he had left them in Bruce’s chambers. He could run out and fetch them, but would he get back in time to save his brother?
Arran returned to the window. He wanted to yell, “I’m coming, Bruce, wait for me! I’ll save ye, brother!” Instead, he could only watch as a red-haired man drove a sword straight through his brother’s chest.
Bruce was a giant of a sixteen-year-old boy, and he fell forth face down like a mountain. The castle stilled as the boy hit the earth head first, crashing into the dirt.
For a moment, wrenching silence filled the castle; silence in Arran’s chambers; silence below, in the once rowdy hell of a kitchen where Cook hummed and her servants bustled about; silence, even on the bloodied patch of land where the MacKenzies had orchestrated their battle. It was a silence so cruel and calm that Arran swore he could hear his brother’s last breaths against the wind.
Silence came first, then chaos. A scream pierced through the air, devastated and broken in its pitch. Arran shifted his gaze as his Pa cried out again. He watched his father, the great Laird MacLean, lunge toward his son, slashing through the MacKenzie soldiers in his path until he had Bruce in his arms. He cupped his son’s face, Bruce’s shoulders shaking as he spat up blood and shuddered with his final breaths.
Arran wiped his eyes. He hadn’t realized he had started crying until he saw a similar set of tears stream down Pa’s face, running through a layer of dust, sweat, and enemy’s blood.
The MacKenzie soldiers watched on, frozen in place as Arran’s father held his eldest son. All at once, Laird MacLean lowered his son’s lifeless body to the ground.
Arran could not muffle his cries. He screamed and shouted his brother’s name, clutching at his chest as Pa placed a hand over Bruce’s face, closing his eyelids.
Arran stepped away from the window. He was not strong enough, nor fast enough. He was useless and helpless. He hadn’t even been able to find a damned pouch of stones.
He slammed his chamber door behind him, storming past the guards as they pulled away from their lookouts, straightening their spears and regaining their standing positions in the corridor. He stormed past anxious servants and Pa’s counselor, Ian, who shouted his name and called after him.
Arran ran until he was out in the open field, where the sun-scorched earth burned against the soles of his feet.
He dashed to his father’s side, past the MacKenzie soldiers, his steps charged with wild frenzy as he drew closer to his brother’s dead body.
Arran wished it all away.
He wanted so badly to reach Bruce’s side and find that his eyes were wide open. He had never wanted anything more, but as Arran reached his brother’s body, a scream burst from his throat, and he fell to his feet.
Pa’s voice bellowed beside him. “Arran! Get away from here!” Arran knew that his father was mere feet from him, but in the hailstorm of his grief, they may as well have been countries apart.
Arran refused to step away from his brother. He could not abandon Bruce in death, but his head spun around in his skull. Warm tears blurred his vision, and he couldn’t even make out his brother’s face as men took back up their fight around him, yelling at one another, chanting war cries as their swords met.
He tried to blink away his tears, but he couldn’t, and they blinded him. Arran knew he would never forget the sight of Bruce’s body as it grew cold and pale, dried blood lining his torn, purple lips, the sun-drenched beneath them both.
Arran felt a strong hand on his elbow yanking him up. When he looked back, it had been Sir Ian. Droplets of spit flew in Arran’s face as the old man shouted furiously, trying to draw the boy away.
Arran struggled against Sir Ian’s grasp, but it was no use. The man was older, taller, and bigger than him.
“Bruce!” he cried as Sir Ian dragged him away, choking on his brother’s name—his dead brother’s name.
Arran felt a chill run down his spine, too cold for words, that only subsided once they reached the inside of the keep. Finally, Sir Ian released Arran from his hold and shut the door of the boy’s chambers behind them.
“What do ye think yer doing, lad?” Sir Ian roared, his voice shaking with fury. His long, gray beard was shaking too.
“He’s dead!” Arran cried. “They killed him…”
“Oh lad,” came Sir Ian’s voice. He planted a series of hesitant yet gentle pats on Arran’s back, though it did not make Arran feel better. If anything, it only made him angry, as if he might burst out of his body. He clenched his fists, sizzling with hatred for the MacKenzies, for the clan that had claimed his brother’s life.
“They killed him,” he repeated helplessly, shrugging off Sir Ian’s hand. “I could have stopped them, Sir Ian. I could have stopped them!”
Sir Ian shook his head. “Ye couldn’t have, Arran. This is nae on you.”
“I could have!” Arran cried. “I was too slow. I looked for my stones, I did, but I couldn’t find where I put them.”
Sir Jan drew in a deep sigh. “Arran, lad. Tis not yer fault. A mere lad ye are. Now remain here, aye? I must return. I must…” The old man took pause. “I must find yer maither.”
Arran turned away from Sir Ian, and he did not look back as his Pa’s counselor shut the door.
Sir Ian was wrong. It was his fault. He wasn’t a mere lad. He was a boy, and he would soon grow into a man, and he could have found those stones, but he did not.
He had failed his brother, and it had cost him his life.
Arran returned to the windowsill. He wiped his eyes and watched as Pa raised his sword arm high, swinging through a fleet of charging MacKenzie soldiers. Arran bunched his fists tight. Aye, that’s right, he thought. Make them pay for their crime. Kill them all! Avenge my brother’s death!
However, almost as quickly as Pa had thrust his sword forth, he lowered it in a show of weakness. Arran gasped as Pa flung the blade away. Its hilt glinted in the sun, then rolled and clattered away until it finally came to a stop against the dirt.
Arran could not believe what was unfolding below. His father turned his face to the sun, tears glinting in his eyes, and cried at the top of his lungs, “The MacKenzies have triumphed! Surrender!” He repeated: “The MacKenzies have won! We surrender! Surrender!”
“Nae, nae, nae!” Arran shook his head, mad in his disbelief.
His father fell to his knees, tearing off his helmet and his hauberk, devastated by grief. Arran watched his Pa hunch over his brother’s cold body, cradling Bruce’s head as he continued to shout his surrender, urging his clan to do the same.
One by one MacLean soldiers yanked off their helmets and flung their words to the ground.
It was then that Laird MacKenzie rose from the smoke and dust of the battleground, his helmet tucked in his underarm. He was a large man with a large head, and the ground seemed to thunder beneath his feet as he approached Arran’s father. Arran thought his Pa looked so small in comparison, whittled away by grief next to his brother’s killer.
Pa rose to his feet, despondent as he parleyed with Laird MacKenzie.
Arran lost sight of the men as they stepped away, for he was too short to see. He edged away from the window and reached for his sturdy toy trunk. He pushed it to the window, then climbed atop it, steadying himself with arms. One poor maneuver and he suddenly lost his footing.
The boy yelled as he toppled backward and landed with a cruel thud on the floor of his chambers, the chest of his belongings spilling open with wooden and ivory toys. To his dismay, hidden among the junk was the purse of stones he had searched for.
Arran swept the stones up and let out a devastating whimper. It wasn’t long before another wail came to join his own as an ear-splitting cry rang through the castle walls.
He ran to the window to find that the MacKenzie soldiers had departed. All that was left in their wake was a wretched battleground dotted with patches of ripped armor, surrendered swords and helmets, and Bruce’s body. The servants heaved him off the ground and arranged him onto a cart, their movements heavy and solemn.
The screams had come from his mother. She was clutching at her chest, calling for her son as they wheeled his lifeless body away. Pa stood before her, his head lowered in sorrow, trying to take his wife in his embrace. Their words were clear against the quiet of the courtyard.
“Nae, ye could nae have!” Ma was wailing. She pushed against Pa. “How could ye?”
“Ava, I beg of ye, please,” said Pa, urging her to lower her voice.
“I cannae have it. Nae!” She shook her head hard and cried more desperately.
“He’s vowed it, Ava. He’s vowed it,” said Pa.
“An’ ye are tae take their word for it, are ye now? We are tae believe it? My own lad! The first o’ my loins. An’ now they want another!” She staggered backward, holding herself in her own embrace. Pa’s arms reached out to steady her, but she shrugged him off.
“He’s vowed it on his sword; he did.”
“I will hear nae more ’o this. Nae, I refuse this,” she declared.
“We dinnae have a choice, Ava. Ye ken what happens,” he said more quietly. “We have lost, an’ Laird MacLean has vowed tae take care o’ our clan.”
“Yer a man, Lamont. Yer a soldier,” she spat. “Ye above all others know that words hold no weight without a pact.”
His father took pause. His shoulders sank as he let out a heavy gust of breath. “I know, Ava. Tis why I asked fo’ something concrete to secure the peace between us.”
Arran watched Ma’s head jerk up, her eyes shooting daggers at her husband. “What did ye ask for? What did ye ask for, Lamont?”
“I asked for his lass’s hand in marriage… to our Arran.”
Arran jolted backward. Impossible, he thought. Nae, he must have misheard. He dashed out of his chamber and followed the sound of his mother’s voice until he was standing across the yard from his parents, panting and struggling for breath.
“What are ye saying, Lamont?” Ma asked before catching sight of Arran.
“I’m saying as o’ today, our Arran is betrothed to Laird MacKenzie’s eldest lass.”
“Nae!” Arran cried.
Arran’s mother came to settle before him. She drew her arms around him, and he cried into her embrace, her linen gown wet with both of their tears, her shoulders shaking as Arran felt her trying to suppress her mountain of grief. “Ma boy,” she hummed.
He untangled from his mother’s hold. “Maybe,” he started but stopped short as another wicked tremor swept through his body. “Maybe he’ll change his mind, Ma? Maybe it was a mistake, and tomorrow he’ll change his mind.”
His mother nodded, her eyes filled with empty encouragement. Without another word, she looped lightly over his shoulder and led him to his chambers like a specter, stopping only once they reached his door; Arran watched his mother sway on her feet as she pushed the door open and wept. “It’s my fault, Ma,” he began.
She wiped her cheeks, snapping out of her daze. “What do ye mean?”
“I…I wanted tae help him,” he whimpered. “Tae help Bruce. The soldiers surrounded him, and he was all alone, and I searched everywhere for my stones. So that I could catapult them and distract them while he escaped.” He buried his face in his hands.
“But too slow, I was. Too late.”
“Oh, my dear Arran.” His mother reached for him, but Arran shrugged her off. He refused to be comforted any longer.
“It’s not yer fault, Arran,” she said fiercely. “Ye bear no blame in this, no part! Do ye hear me?”
Maybe I didnae bear a part in his death, Arran thought then, But I will bear a part in avenging my brother’s death. I shall find a way tae honor Bruce if it’s the last thing I do.
His mother’s lips were soft against his cheeks as she kissed him. “Rest,” she said. Tears pooled again in her eyes as she shook her head and backed away.
Arran watched his mother, a beautiful, proud woman, as she went, sobbing down the hallway.
The trick was to take a deep breath before releasing his grip. Bruce had taught him as much all those years ago: “Shut your eyes. Deep breath. Open. Then, release.” Arran did exactly that, and his arrow swirled through the air, past drooping tree branches and falling brown leaves before landing on its target. His arrow etched itself deeply and perfectly into the bark of the tree.
Arran had been practicing archery all morning. He shrugged off thoughts of Bruce as he pulled out another arrow from his bag, set it across his bow, and aimed true.
It was his birthday today. He was twenty-four; Bruce would have been twenty-eight. A dark feeling of grief spread over Arran’s chest like a hot, foul liquid as he released his grip on his bow.
Every year on the morning of his birthday before Bruce’s death, his brother woke him up by creeping into his chamber while he was still asleep and scaring him witless.
Then, with his green eyes singing victorious glee, his blond curls waving down his forehead, he would clamber over Arran, lower his mouth to his ear, and wish him well as loudly and savagely as possible: “La Breithe shona dhuit! A happy birthday tae ye!”
Bruce always had a way of making even the mundane things seem like magic. Of course, Bruce couldn’t make magic anymore. He couldn’t do anything. He was dead. He had been dead for twelve years now.
Arran tried again to shake the memory of Bruce from his head. He channeled his buried memories and emotions into his arm and leveled another, more vicious shot.
“Good one,” Adam said beside him before releasing an arrow of his own. Adam was the son of one of his father’s counselors, and he had been friends with Arran and his younger brother, Douglas, since they had been pups.
Arran was not a man of many words, and neither was Adam. He suspected that was why they enjoyed each other’s company. They rode their horses in silence; they practiced their archery and hunted game in silence, save for the occasional talk about the weather or lauding of an exceptionally fine shot.
“Thank ye,” said Arran. “Fine shot yersel.” The tip of Adam’s arrow lodged itself perfectly between two pieces of large bark on the tree.
Adam grinned and clapped Arran on the back. “Big day today, aye?” he jested, to which Arran shrugged.
Arran did not much care for his birthday, but he tried to summon some level of excitement to appease those around him. He cared for his family and his clan, and he knew the castle and its people needed a reason to smile and celebrate, if only for a day.
As was expected, Arran worked up a smile before gently shrugging Adam’s hand off his shoulder. “Aye, I suppose,” he answered.
“An’ I can smell the kitchens all the way from here, I tell ya,” Adam said. He sauntered off deeper into the woods, patting his stomach playfully as his figure faded in between the trees.
Arran forced a smile as long as Adam was in view. When the trees and their many branches had finally swallowed his friend, he finally relaxed into a scowl. He drew more arrows from his quiver and loosed more than he cared to count.
High above him, the sun was setting red and sinking low to the horizon. Yards away in the castle, he could hear bells ringing. If he stepped a plot or two forward, he knew he would smell Cook’s special soup, roast chicken, and cream cake. Arran patted his growling stomach at the thought of all the food they were busy preparing for his birthday banquet.
He kicked off the caking of wet dirt that clung to the heel of his boots, then sheathed his bow and collected his arrows. He pulled his coat tightly over his trunk, then waded through brambles and short, thorny shrubs as he made for the stables first.
Arran entered the stable. It smelled wet and cold, of dirt, fresh leaves, and horse mess. With a sigh, he took off his hunting bag. The horses neighed and ate in silence.
Arran went to find Black Sebastian, Bruce’s favorite horse, and patted him gently. He was a sturdy horse, dark as midnight and proud and brave as his owner had been. Arran tended to the horse despite the stable boy’s mild protests, claiming that the future laird needs “not concern himself with such lowly tasks”, especially on his birthday.
“It’s alright, Jonah. I can handle this,” he said to the boy.
He gave Sebastian one last gentle smack on the mane, then picked up his bag and bow and made for the castle. Arran trudged through melting snow as he drew closer to home. With each step, he felt heavier, as if some invisible hand had draped a blanket over him, urging him to stay in the forest, where it was safer, where people didn’t ask so much of him. He felt more dispirited than before he had set off for the stables. Perhaps he shouldn’t have paid Sebastian a visit after all.
The great dining hall would be awash with festive preparations for their future laird. Despite Arran’s reservations, he wouldn’t be late for a gathering that was being held in his name. When he reached the courtyard, he was met by a bustle like no other: Cook was yelling at a servant; two guards were huddled in a corner speaking in impassioned tones; and Douglas, his younger brother, was standing with his arms crossed over his big chest, his hairy eyebrows set in hard determination.
“Who’s stolen yer biscuits now?” said Arran in jest. Douglas could be so grave sometimes—most of the time, in fact.
As Arran had expected, Douglas’s scowl did not budge. Instead, and perhaps absentmindedly, he rested his hand limply atop his broad sword belt. It had been clasped tightly around his waist, which was thicker and more muscled than any of the boys his age. He barked at a scurrying servant who’d nearly tripped over before him, then fell in line beside Arran.
“We need tae talk.”
“Oh, aye! Ambush me right before me birthday banquet, why don’t you” said Arran. “What more could a brother ask for?”
Shoulder to shoulder, they made their way through the castle, which hummed with the chatter of servants preparing for an upcoming feast. A group of guards parted for them as they strutted past, up flight after flight of stairs.
“Laird MacKenzie sent a messenger,” Douglas revealed at last.
He kept a steady pace beside Arran, his breathing leveled and even as if the stairs were no object to his might. Arran had trouble catching his breath. Douglas was younger than Arran, but he was taller and twice his size. His brother looked like three boys rolled and flattened into one.
Arran could not find it in himself to answer until they were in his chamber. He unstrapped his bow, then undid the buttons of his shirt.
In the middle of his chamber sat a large bowl of fruits, no doubt left there by Cook.
It had been a small tradition of theirs. A red apple caught the last of the fading sunlight and glowed red in the dim light of the chamber. It brought a smile to Arran’s face. He reached for the fruit and took a generous bite. Then, he turned to his brother. “From whom have ye learned this?”
Douglas shrugged. “That’s nae the important bit, Arran. Faither will ask ye to fulfill that ghastly promise they made all those years ago. Now’s our chance!” Douglas reached for the fruit bowl and bit into an apple of his own. Despite his brooding and permanent grave expression, even he could not resist such a fine-looking selection of treats.
“I hear ye,” Arran said as he unbuttoned his shirt.
Douglas did not look convinced. “Remember? We made a promise o’ to-”
“I don’t need ye, Douglas, to remind me o’ the things that keep me up at night and plague my dreams and get me up in the morning.” He hadn’t meant to sound offish, but he couldn’t help it.
Douglas leveled him a hard glance, but Arran did not blink.
Finally, his brother’s shoulders sagged in resignation. “Alright,” he conceded.
“Everyone’s waiting for ye,” he added, turning on his heels. Without warning, as if to test his older brother’s fortitude, he picked up a fruit and threw it at Arran. Arran lifted his hand swiftly, catching the plum mid-air. He smirked at Douglas.
Bruce would be proud, he thought.
Both brothers grinned at each other.
“Happy birthday, ye old gommy,” said Douglas before pulling the door shut behind him.
Arran rolled his eyes, then stuffed himself with as many apples and strawberries as his belly would allow. He took off the rest of his clothing and allowed himself a long bath. He had the right of it, he thought: he was tired, in spirit and in his bones, from hunting and from his time in the stables, and from the collection of half-slumbers his nights allowed him, plagued with nightmares forever.
The previous night of rest had been no different.
Arran fell into a light sleep, his arms splayed widely over the edge of the tub, his body lathered with soap, his head leaning at a terrible angle.
In his dream, Bruce was nothing more than a blurry figure against the dark, standing so far away, that Arran couldn’t make out his face. Still, Arran knew it was him. He could never forget the way his brother looked. He journeyed toward Bruce, but the more steps he took, the further Bruce drifted away. Arran trudged through swampy forests, then skittered on ice, but it was not enough to close the distance between them.
When Arran finally woke from his sleep, it was to the sound of knocking on his door. Beyond the rich burgundy drapes, night held a blanket of darkness over the MacLean keep. Arran shook his head. He had drifted off on the evening of his birthday, plagued by another nightmare, no less.
He was a man of unrest.
He would always be a man of unrest until he had avenged his brother.
“I’m coming!” he yelled to whoever was behind the door to his chamber. The knocking ceased. Arran washed his body in the cold water of his bath and dressed for the banquet.
He knew what had to be done.
The great dining hall was ablaze with lights as the guard announced Arran’s entrance.
The hall delighted in chatter and good-hearted laughter. The tables were flooded with fine food, and wine overflowed from large glasses.
He excused himself to the noblemen and women for having kept them waiting, then settled beside his brother and father.
“Ah, here we are! He graces us with his esteemed presence, at long last,” came a voice. Arran turned on his heels and was not surprised to find that it was Esme who had spoken. She was the daughter of Sir Ian and had been an only child since her brother had passed in the battle that had also claimed Bruce’s life those twelve years ago.
Their shared loss of a sibling was the only thing Arran had in common with Esme. She was a belligerent young lady with eagle-like eyes who always had a bad word to offer about anyone, at any time. She cared only for the most expensive silk and the most subservient of servants. Arran could hardly believe there had been a time before Bruce’s death when they all played in his mother’s pleasure garden when they had wreaked havoc in the kitchen and had enjoyed hours of hiding and seek in the cellar.
She had somehow grown from a thoughtful, lighthearted young girl into a beautiful but insufferable woman.
Arran knew he would not survive her conversation if it weren’t offset by the company of others. He would have preferred to ignore her altogether, but social gatherings called for manners.
Arran simply nodded in her direction. “Esme,” he stated cooly. “Lovely indeed that ye could make it.”
Esme leveled him a look that made it clear she did not believe him and that she would not play his games, either.
As if by divine intervention, his mother came to the rescue, as was most in her nature. “Happy birthday, my dear boy,” she said, taking his hand lightly in hers.
Arran shot one last hard glance at Esme before returning Ma’s smile. To anyone else, the smile would have been inconsequential, but to Arran, who had shared her loss, who had grieved alongside her, that smile meant more than words ever could. It was a smile that told a tale of lost love and family.
“Thank ye, Maither,” Arran said.
“Ye look handsome,” replied Ma. “Just like Bruce.”
Ma and Pa had hardly spoken of Bruce since his passing as if mentioning his name would be like reliving his death all over again. As such, Arran was surprised to hear his brother’s name slip from between his mother’s lips. Her eyes had turned up in surprise too, as if she were also taken aback.
The dining hall fell into a grave silence, then, that stretched from the noblewomen in their jeweled earrings and the beaded pearls that clasped elegantly at their necks to the noblemen who had been happily talking trade, commerce, and England mere moments before his mother’s words.
Pa broke the silence, and Arran thanked the Heavens. His father raised a glass. “A toast,” he said, “to our guest of honor, to my boy, and to you, future Laird!”
Wine spilled about as the attendees lifted their glasses in Arran’s name and drank gladly. “To Arran, our future laird!” they echoed.
Arran returned Pa’s smile. It was a real smile, one that widened his cheeks and spread up to his sad eyes.
However, it did not last. Soon enough, his father had slipped back into his shell, eating and sipping at his drink in frail silence, nodding along to whatever Sir Ian or a tipsy nobleman was rambling about, and occasionally chipping in an “oh,” or, “ah, yes.”
Over a decade had passed since the battle. The MacKenzies had kept their side of the bargain, and had taken care of the MacLeans and their clan. Peace had reigned, but Pa had not remained the same.
Time and the loss of his firstborn son had beaten him into a fidgety old man. He folded into himself and wore aloofness like a second skin. He demanded silence wordlessly in whatever room he entered, and he spoke little, even when pressed to part his lips and address a gathering.
Arran was not surprised, then, but he was ashamed. He knew he would never forget how quickly Pa had surrendered to the MacKenzie clan after Bruce was killed, how he allowed the MacKenzies to attack them in the first place and claim Bruce’s life, to trample over him and his will like a spineless dog.
Twelve years of peace, for what? For muteness and for cowardice.
Arran ate and drank in silence. After a short moment, and to his surprise, Pa cleared his throat beside him and leaned in close. “Ye’ve entered into a new year, my son,” he said. “And the time has come for you to honor our commitment to the MacKenzies.”
Arran gulped down his drink. He pushed his glass away.
He had known for years that this day would come. Even though Douglas had spoken of it earlier, in his chamber, nothing could have prepared him for his father’s concession.
Arran felt anger rise within him like hot bile. He was enraged at his father’s suggestion, enraged at the idea of marrying the daughter of the man who had claimed his brother’s life.
There would be no escaping it, of course. He had known he could not outrun his fate nor his father’s pact, yet nothing had prepared him for the sick feeling in his gut when finally presented with the reality of his destiny.
Arran tugged at his shirt. He felt choked for air. From the corner of his eye, he could tell Esme was watching in that sly way of hers. She tipped the rim of her glass toward him, then flicked the glass edge with her tongue and took a sip. Douglas and Ma were also watching, Douglas seated to his left, his mother to his right. She had stiffened beside him, and Douglas’s face was overcast in dark shadow.
Arran cleared his throat, awfully aware that he was ill-prepared for this news. The last thing he wanted was to make a scene at his own birthday feast. He turned to Pa with a tight smile. “What might ye be speaking o’, Faither?”
Of course, he knew exactly what his father was speaking of. The truth was staring him right in the face, even though he wished it ardently away, much like he had wished Bruce’s death away even as he held his pale, cold hand all those years ago.
“Yer betrothal, Arran,” his father confirmed as if Arran could have forgotten. “‘Tis time tae marry the MacKenzie lass.” Pa cleared his throat and downed a glass of water. Beside him, Arran could almost feel the unconstrained fury buzzing through his younger brother’s veins.
“I’m old, and ye’ve come o’ age, Arran,” said Pa. “The time for waiting is over. Ye ought to invite the lass to our keep by the end of the week. Our clans await a marriage, and we’ll give one tae them.”
“A marriage tae the woman whose faither murdered my brother,” said Arran through gritted teeth. He knew it was unseemly behavior to talk back to his father, especially in the midst of guests, but for once he couldn’t help himself.
Pa sighed. “A marriage tae cement peace and unity between two clans,” said Pa. “A bargain is a bargain.” He clasped his hand gently over Arran’s shoulder and said as convincing and fatherly a voice as he could muster, “This is yer part to play, son. Husband tae the MacKenzie lass, and future laird o’ our united clans.”
Albeit not overtly rudely, Arran shrugged off his father’s hand. He regarded his mother, who had a pleading look on her face. He hated to see Ma look so distressed. Her eyes begged him not to make a scene, begged him to listen to his father, to accept that which he could not change, to marry the MacKenzie lass.
Arran turned away from Ma. He couldn’t stand it any longer. His eyes locked on Douglas’ face, whose bushy eyebrows were knitted together, his face flush and ablaze with righteous fury, and something else as well, something that Arran recognized all too well. It was the same glint of desire that he caught in his own eyes when he looked in the mirror: vengeance.
He could almost hear his younger brother’s voice in his head: Remember our promise. Now is our chance.
Arran wrapped his hands over the nearest cup and downed it in a single gulp. His mind was a mess, swirling with a hundred thoughts and emotions, but the memory of his dream, of Bruce, drifting away with each step Arran took closer to him, burned at the back of his eyes. His promise echoed like church bells in his head. He caught a sly look on Esme’s face as he reached for Ma’s hand and squeezed it gently. Then, he leaned into Pa and said evenly, “I’m sorry, Pa. Yer right. I shall send for my future wife first thing tomorrow.”
The table erupted in light applause. The gatherers had been listening between their whispered discussions and clumsy silences.
“Oh, Arran, will ye now?” said Ma, gushing as she squeezed his hand back. “I’m so relieved tae hear it, son, so relieved.”
“Of course, Ma. I have my duties tae uphold, after all.” Duties of revenge, he thought, Duties to liberate his clan from subjugation.
“Indeed,” Sir Ian offered as he lifted his glass and raised another toast. “Tae the future laid!” A delicate pause took precedence, and then: “And his bride!”
“Tae the future laird and his bride!” The people in the hall chorused after him.
Arran returned his mother’s smile. Douglas was grinning too, Arran noticed, but he knew it was not for the same reason as all the others seated around the table.
His younger brother was not only toasting to his future laird. He was toasting to the death of the lass whose father had murdered their brother on a battlefield. He was toasting to the death of Arran’s future wife.
He was toasting to vengeance.
Arran raised his own glass and cheered. Their plan had been set in motion, and there was no going back now.
He would marry the MacKenzie lass.
He would kill her.
And finally, he would bring honor to his brother’s name.
Mother clapped her hands together as if fending off an enemy attack. “Nae, nae, certainly nae that!” she protested.
Lorna sighed and lifted her arms so that Mary Lou, her lady’s maid, could shrug the gown off of her body. It was the fifth gown she had tried on, good heavens, and the fifth gown of twenty her mother had laid out.
Lorna wanted to roll her eyes, but she resisted the urge. Patience had never been her strongest virtue, but she took in deep breaths and calmed herself. Then, when she thought Ma was no longer looking, she gestured to Mary Lou to sneak her bow and arrows into her travel trunk, as they had planned.
However, Ma, wise old Ma, turned around at the last moment. Her jaw almost fell to the ground in shock. “Certainly nae that, either! Heaven forbid!”
Lorna sighed again. She knew her mother would never agree to let her take her plaything, but she had wanted to try anyway.
She was never one to give up without a fight.
“Alright,” Lorna conceded, finally allowing herself to roll the eyes that had been begging to be rolled all morning. She motioned to Mary Lou to take her favorite weapon out of the box.
Mary Lou’s lips were pressed together as if to keep from smiling. “Her ladyship would rather walk on hot coals than let ye take them with ye,” she had said to Lorna moments before Ma had swirled through the door and joined them in her packing for their journey to the MacLean’s keep, which was set to be her new home. Mary had been right, of course. The only thing Ma disapproved of more than a woman with a bow and arrow, or any weapon really, was a drunk woman.
Across from Lorna, curled elegantly atop a heap of pillows, her sister Fenella was droning on about something that Lorna had since lost track of. She had begun by talking about her last journey through the highlands with the Duke of Emberton. Then, she had spoken of scarfed bandits and a miserable carriage ride. Or had it been a storm?
Whatever it was, Lorna had stopped listening by the time she had changed out of her third gown. She was too busy being exhausted and devising a way to take her bow and arrow without Ma’s knowledge.
Fenella huffed and clapped her hands together as if the draw her sister’s attention. “Yer nae listening to me, are ye?”
“Of course, I am,” Lorna lied. Then, she turned to Mary Lou, who had busied herself with packing her bags for their travel. “All the dresses except that violet,” she said to her maid.
That seemed to pique Ma’s interest. She raised her eyebrows in bewilderment. “Why ever not? The violet is lovely,” Lady MacKenzie stated.
Lorna exchanged a quick glance with Mary Lou, who was smoothing the crumpled lines of a wool coat and trying hard to stifle a smile. She shoved the bag further onto Lorna’s bed to keep it from falling from the edge.
Lorna had always secretly detested the violet dress with its too wide arms and too frilly hems, but she wore it because Pa liked it, and Pa liked it because Pa liked whatever Ma liked, even though she had hardly seen much of Pa in recent years.
Lorna wanted to groan in her disagreement. Instead, she gestured in Mary’s direction, signaling her to include the violet dress too. Ma, along with Fenella and her father, would be by her side for the trip, both journeying through the highlands with her and staying a while in her new home after the wedding. She knew she would be grateful for their company when the time came for holding her hands and encouraging her. Ma almost always knew how to make her feel less overwhelmed and less alone, being the good mother that she was. The least Lorna could do was take the violet dress that Ma wanted along with her, no matter how reluctantly.
All of Lorna’s life seemed to boil down to this moment: her becoming the bride of Arran MacLean, future laird of their both clans. Her whole life was about to change.
As if sensing the shift in her mood, Ma placed a light touch on her shoulder. “What’s wrong, my love?”
“Naething, Maither.” She shook her head. “Just thinking.”
“What about?” said Lady MacKenzie, and Fenella and Lorna exchanged meaningful glances.
Lorna deeply appreciated her connection with Fenella. They often spoke with their eyes without needing to part their lips.
“Alright, that’s our cue,” Fenella said then, ushering Mary Lou and herself out of Lorna’s chamber. She shut the door behind them.
When they were gone, Ma gathered up the silk hem of her dress and joined Lorna on the bed. Lorna was seated on edge, hands clasped together atop her knee. Ma scooped her shoulder in a lighthearted side hug. “Are ye scared, my dear?”
“Terrified,” Lorna confessed.
Ma tossed her head back in laughter. “So was I, on the eve o’ me wedding.”
Lorna let out a disbelieving scoff. “It’s nae the same, Ma.”
“O’ course it is.”
“Pa adores ye. Yer are both perfect together.”
Ma beamed, and Lorna rolled her eyes. There were very few things Ma enjoyed more than a compliment that rang with the truth.
“Yes,” she agreed, “But yer perfect too, and yer husband will adore ye.”
“Come now, Maither. It’s nae the same.”
“However could ye mean?”
“Ye and Pa! Ye knew each other yer whole lives, and ye certainly were in love before yer betrothal.”
“Aye, Lorna,” her mother conceded, “but it dinnae mean I was nae scared out o’ me brains because I was.” She stroked Lorna’s cheek. “My dear, ye’ve prepared all yer life for this. There is nae one in the country, and beyond more empowered tae bring peace and unity tae our clans than ye.”
Lorna nodded, but her mother’s words did not make her less terrified. If anything, they made her more terrified, knowing that she was alone in her destiny, that she was so unique, that she alone could marry the MacLean heir and bring lasting peace to both of their clans.
Anguish stabbed at Lorna’s chest like a blade. She did not know if she could do this.
Even if she had the strength to, she feared she wasn’t ready. She voiced out her inhibitions before she could stop herself. Ever since childhood, Lorna had always been one to speak her mind, despite being a girl. “What if I’m nae ready, Ma?” she said.
“Ye are, Lorna, more than ye even know. Trust in yer ma.” Her mother squeezed her hand encouragingly, but it did not stop Lorna from dwelling on everything that could go awry.
What if Arran MacLean took one look at her and hated the sight of her? What if she took one look at him and hated the sight of him? What if their intellects did not match? What if their spirits did not meet on the same plane? What then? Would she be expected to live out a life of dissatisfaction and misery in the name of bringing peace to her clan? in the name of fulfilling her life purpose?
Would giving up her life, her home, and her freedom be worth it?
Lorna wanted the best for herself and for her clan, but still, she could not help but worry.
Ma let go of her hand, then. She was smiling that motherly smile of hers, one that dazzled like a hundred candles and comforted Lorna all at once. “Lorna, yer more ready than ye could possibly imagine. Yer a MacKenzie, my dear. Fear not, for there is nothing we cannot do when we set our hearts tae it.”
“I hear ye, Ma,” Lorna replied. She allowed her shoulders to relax and released the tension from her back and jaw. She felt strengthened by her mother’s encouragement.
Still, a small part of her hummed with hesitation and uncertainty.
Lorna rose to her feet and continued packing where Mary Lou had left off.
“So long as yer a good wife,” Ma continued, smoothing down the beaded pearls sewn into the plate of fabric at her cleavage. Mother liked pretty and shiny things.
Lorna liked pretty things too, like her bow and arrows. She and her mother simply had differing definitions of what pretty meant, and sometimes she wished Ma simply accepted it.
“And he be a good husband,” countered Lorna.
“Lorna,” said her mother with a warning.
“What?” Lorna feigned innocence.
It was Ma’s turn to roll her eyes. “Lorna, I know that strong mind o’ yours, and it’s nae always a bad thing but ye must remember—”
“Nae always, eh?” Lorna retorted, but she was smiling.
Her mother waved a dismissive hand and said, “Ye know what I mean. Not everyone is as tolerating o’ an outspoken woman as we’ve been in this house, and ye know ye only get away with it because yer father is laird. I’m only saying, it will nae always be that way elsewhere.”
“I hear ye, Ma,” said Lorna, but Ma no longer had her gaze fixed on her. Ma was standing by the window, looking over the gardener who was hunched on his knees in the flower garden, digging holes and watering plants with his gloved hands and cap.
Lorna took in a slow, steady breath. Ma wasn’t looking. It was now or never.
As soundlessly as she could manage, she took out the violet dress and shoved it under her bed. Done! Ma’s head was still turned to the gardens, her eyes lost in the flowerbeds ten feet below her.
Next, Lorna reached for the bag containing her bow and arrows. Of course, Ma chose that moment to turn around. Lorna bit her tongue to keep from cursing. She released her grip on her bow and quickly shoved it aside before Ma’s eyes came to rest upon it.
Ma cocked her head and leveled Lorna a suspicious look. “Lorna—“ she began, but Fenella cut her short as she shoved the door open and swooped back in.
“Pa demands yer presence,” said Fenella.
Ma’s eyes turned up in surprise upon hearing Fenella’s words, and so did Lorna’s. Their reactions were not uncalled for, as over the years, Pa had morphed into a man of strict solitude, withered and tucked away in his chambers. He hadn’t demanded anyone’s presence in too long a while.
“Do ye mean that, Fenella?” Lorna asked, feeling dubious. It wasn’t beyond her younger sister to play a prank on her.
“Yes, golly,” said Fenella. “He sent a servant. I stopped him by the door and took a message for ye.” She crossed her legs and started to fan herself as a sly smile stole the corners of her lips. “I dinnae want him intruding on yer sacred marriage-bride talk,” she added, and Lorna made a face at her.
Fenella made a face right back. “So? What did ye two splendid ladies speak o’ in mine absence? What husbands disapprove o’ and from where babies come?”
“Fenella!” cried Ma, a hot flush of red spreading over her face. Lorna bit the inside corners of her cheeks to keep from laughing.
Fenella was a sweet, innocent girl at heart, but every so often, she took to scandalizing Ma for the fun of it.
Lorna did not scandalize Ma, or draw on her disapproval for the fun of it. If anything, she preferred to always get along with Ma, and she liked that they shared the same views on womanliness and being free-spirited, on husbands and marriages. It was rather quite unfortunate that Lorna had inherited Ma’s beauty and Pa’s too-strong mind.
Beside her, Ma fanned her face with her hand. Mary Lou was also stifling a grin at Fenella’s outburst.
Lorna smacked Fenella lightly on her thigh. “Ow!” Fenella yelled in lighthearted protest. “Yer going tae make babies someday,” she called after her. “Somehow.”
“Fenella!” cried Mother.
This time, Lorna couldn’t help it. Her shoulders shook as she laughed. “I’ll see tae Pa at once,” she said as she excused herself. She crossed out of the room, but not before whispering to Mary Lou, “Do try tae keep them from devouring each other before I’m back.”
Then, she stepped out of her chambers and shut the door behind her.
A servant was kneeling beside Pa as Lorna entered his chamber. The short lass pulled the sheets over Pa’s neck and shakily raised a glass of water to his lips. Pa gulped the water, then pushed the cup away.
“Excuse us,” he said in his deep rasping voice to the lass, who bowed and scurried out the door.
Lorna was left alone with her father. She smoothed her damp hands on the sides of her dress. She took the stool beside him. “How do you feel, Pa?”
Her father groaned something vaguely to himself, but he was smiling at her. He’d been down with a fever for a few days now, but even when Pa wasn’t sick, he remained tucked away, alone in the confines of his chamber or his study. His meals were brought up to him, and Lorna could count on her fingertips how many times a year she laid eyes on her father in private settings.
It was she had gotten away with pursuing boyish hobbies like throwing stones, carving her own catapults, and playing with her uncle’s swords: Pa had been too busy dwelling in his solitude to shun her misguided inclinations, too busy to stop her from sneaking out into the woods with her friends and practicing her self-carved bow and arrow.
Pa had not always been this way, she had heard, shrunken up and pale. He had once been a sweeping storm of a man, bright-eyed and strong-footed, commanding presence from even the most strong-headed of men. He conquered enemy villages. He defeated clans who rose up against them. Nobody knew why he had suddenly folded into a shadow of himself, but Lorna knew when it happened.
Things had soured roughly after his return from the battle with the MacLeans, twelve years ago or so, after her betrothal to the son of the MacLean laird. Twelve years ago, when her life’s purpose was decided for her: to be the bride of the future laird of their clans, to serve him and bear his children. The entire trajectory of her life had been altered in a single day, with a single decision.
Her life had never been the same since that day, but neither had Pa’s.
Now, Pa peeled the sheets from his chest and sat up straight. He reached for Lorna’s hand and squeezed with all the strength his bones could muster, which wasn’t much. “I feel strong as a mountain, dear lass,” he answered her at last, “finer than I was yesterday.”
It was his usual answer, what Pa always said when she or Fenella or Ma asked how he was feeling. Strong as a mountain, my love. Finer than I was yesterday. He would be saying it even in his grave, Ma had joked. Lorna smiled a little at her father’s resilience. It was one thing they had in common.
“Ye asked tae see me,” she said.
Pa cupped a hand over his mouth as a rack of coughs stole the words from him. Lorna filled an empty glass on his bedside table with water and lifted it to his mouth. Her grip was firm and steady. Pa’s sips were slow. After a moment, he gestured that he had had his fill, and Lorna put the glass away.
“How are yer preparations coming along?”
Despite feeling like a bundle of nerves about her upcoming journey, Lorna beamed. “Tis going well, Pa. We’re done packing, and the carriages are ready tae my knowledge.”
Laird MacKenzie nodded. “How do ye feel?”
Lorna’s chest heaved as she let out a heavy sigh. “More terrified than I’ve felt about anything else in my life.”
Lorna’s father lightly clasped his hand over hers. “There is naething tae fear, my dear.”
Lorna almost scoffed at that. “Except my soon marriage tae a man I’ve never met, that is.”
Father smiled at that. “Aye,” he agreed. “But fear is good too.”
“And how so, Faither?”
He had a faraway look in his eyes as he answered, “It helps us think deeply before we act.”
Lorna watched her father, the droop of his shoulders, the distant look on his face. “What do ye mean, Pa?”
Laird MacKenzie did not answer, only shook his head. He rubbed his chest, a trick he did to prevent more coughs from overcoming him. “Ye’ll be journeying with yer Ma and sister,” he finally said.
“Ma and Fenella and ye,” said Lorna. She did not mean to sound insistent, but there was a strange look on Pa’s face, and she feared what he might be saying, what he had yet to say.
“Ye will nae need me,” said laird MacKenzie.
Lorna clutched her father’s hand tighter than she meant to, then she let go. He was a frail old man, she did not want to compound his pain. “Pa, no.”
“I cannot journey with ye, Lorna. Not in this state. I’d slow ye down, and I dinnae want that for ye.” He patted her shoulder. “I trust ye and yer sister. I trust yer Ma to offer ye guidance and counseling when you need it the most.” He reached for her hands and clasped both of them in his. “But I know ye. I trust that ye will let wisdom, patience, and understanding lead the way. Unlike,” he said, then coughed lightly, “unlike me.”
“What do ye mean, Faither?” she said, but he only shook his head. “Whatever you do, do not let your emotions lead yer way, Lorna. Not hurt, not anger. Especially not anger.”
Lorna stayed awhile, offering Pa water when he coughed, listening to his words of advice. She was sometimes confused, but she let her father say all that he wanted to say without interruption.
Later, she would chew on his words. She would try to make better sense of them and deduct her own meaning, but for now, her father counseled her, and she listened. He wrapped her in a brief but not unaffectionate hug when he had said all that he had wished to say.
He cupped her face in his palms. “The destiny o’ our entire clan rests on yer shoulders now,” he said.
They were great words from a great man, and while they terrified Lorna, they also made her feel empowered and determined to live up to expectations.
Lorna would do right by her people and fulfill her purpose. She would come together in marriage with Arran of the MacLean clan in a union of peace and mutual respect.
So long, of course, as her future husband did not make this difficult for her.
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